Ponchielli – La Gioconda
CAST: Gioconda: Montserrat Caballé, Enzo Grimaldo: Luciano Pavarotti, La Cieca: Alfreda Hodgson, Alvise Badoero: Nicolai Ghiaurov, Laura: Agnes Baltsa, Barnaba: Sherrill Milnes, Zuane: John Del Carlo, Isepo: Regolo Romani, Barnabotto: Rodney Macann
London Opera Chorus
Chorus Master: Terry Edwards
National Philharmonic Orchestra
Bruno Bartoletti, conductor
Decca, 1981 (1990)
The last century boasts at least three memorable sopranos performing the challenging role of Gioconda: the first was Anita Cerquetti, who sang the role in an old but memorable recording with Mario del Monaco; the second – and probably the most outstanding – was Renata Tebaldi, who favourited Gioconda in the last decade of her career; and, finally, Montserrat Caballé, who recorded La Gioconda in the early Eighties with a stellar cast including Luciano Pavarotti (Enzo Grimaldo), Sherrill Milnes (Barnaba), Nicolai Ghiaurov (Alvise Badoero) and Agnes Baltsa (Laura), under Bruno Bartoletti’s conduction.
Montserrat Caballé (La Gioconda)
Gioconda’s pivotal piece is in the fourth act, the desperate Suicidio!, but everything the soprano sings there is present from the beginning of the opera and Suicidio! represents “only” the last manifestation of the most generous nature. This is something that Monserrat Caballé has understood very well and she sings Gioconda as the frailest and the humblest creature, whose resignation and abnegation are equal only to her feeling of impending tragedy. Her singing is connoted with the usual lyricism, but with of desperate awareness that makes it a little less ethereal and a little more human than usual. Her performance is simply perfect, with the slight exception of her low register.
Luciano Pavarotti (Enzo Grimaldo)
Luciano Pavarotti is a remarkable Enzo Grimaldo, though his voice is a little too light for the role. Apart from some excessive outbursts give the impression that he is singing a less noble role than that of a Genovese prince, his easy singing and the incomparable timbre of his voice are elements that allow him to sing Cielo e mar as an evocative piece and to add a wide range of nuances to his role, from the tenderness with which he addresses Laura to the fits of rage.
Agnes Baltsa (Laura) and Alfreda Hodgson (La Cieca)
The other two positive characters are not less fine than the two protagonists and if Agnes Baltsa is a perfect Laura thanks to the precious colour of her voice, the elegance of her phrasing and the heartfelt participation in her heroine’s situations, Alfreda Hodgson as La Cieca (Gioconda’s mother) offers one of the best rendition of minor roles.
Sherrill Milnes (Barnaba) and Nicolai Ghiaurov (Badoero)
The evil side of humanity is represented in La Gioconda by the cunning Barnaba and the inflexible Alvise Badoero, performed by Sherrill Milnes and Nicolai Ghiaurov respectively. Two different types of “evils”, of course: Barnaba is a spy, while Badoero is a powerful member of the Venetian oligarchy, but the performances of Milnes and Ghiaurov make them equally great. Milnes’s Barnaba is the perfect portrait of the honeyed, sly man who has a particular pleasure to instigate his neighbour against someone. Milnes’s singing eloquently betrays Barnaba’s evil mind and it is really a pleasure to hear how he is able to penetrate the character’s psychology.
Ghiaurov’s Badoero is less complicated and more frank. He expresses his resentment towards his unfaithful wife caustically and it is enough to hear his scene at the beginning of the third act to guess his grudge and his ferocious desire of revenge. The only thing that raises Badoero from base to aristocratic villain is Ghiaurov’s indefectibly noble singing but, apart from this distinguishing trait of the great bass, the malice of the character can be considered complete.
As for Bruno Bartoletti, his conduction is excellent. He supports the singers leaving them free to sing at their pleasure, but he does not sacrifice his own creativity and instead adds emotion and colours to their scenes with intelligence. It can be said that he fills Gioconda with his presence.
Next to the other great Gioconda of the 20th century with Cerquetti and Tebaldi, this one does not look out of place and it is actually one of the best available on the market.